Dear Fr. Leo,
What does the church teach about tattoos? I was always told it was forbidden. — A
Believe it or not, there is nothing in the Catechism that forbids tattoos per se. There is a text from Leviticus 19 that some look to for such a prohibition, but when viewed in the context of the age, that had more to do with the practice of the surrounding pagans who would tattoo themselves as a sign of their dedication to a false god. The people of Israel would have rightly been forbidden this practice, but we cannot just appropriate it for the present day. If you read the text, you will see that it also prohibits getting a haircut and trimming your beard. Yikes!
The Catechism does not mention tattoos specifically, but it is worth looking at what it says about respect for bodily integrity in the section on “Respect for the Dignity of Persons.” Paragraph 2,297 says, “Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.”
Again, context is important here. This statement comes under the section forbidding torture and other atrocities. One cannot read this paragraph in the Catechism without thinking about the tattoos forcibly placed on prisoners in Nazi concentration camps in the early 20th century.
As the Catechism notes, there are therapeutic reasons for tattoos. Those undergoing radiation therapy for cancer will have a tattoo that serves as a target for the radiologist. There are also many cultures where tattoos are used to designate that one has gone through certain rites of passage. Finally, modern culture is much more accepting of ink as a form of personal expression.
That being said, there are some very important things a Catholic should consider if contemplating getting a tattoo. First, it is important to remember that a tattoo is a permanent alteration of one’s body. Tattoo removal is very expensive and, I’m told, quite painful. So, essentially, a tattoo is something that will be with you for life.
Second, E. Christian Brugger, a Catholic moral theologian, makes an excellent point about tattoos as symptomatic of an attitude of “body-person duality” that is so prevalent in modern secular culture. Brugger notes that this attitude is typified by thinking of one’s body as a possession he or she owns, rather than as an intrinsic part of one’s person. Modern secular humanism talks about “my body,” in much the same way one would talk about “my house, my car, or my goldfish.” This leads to the idea that “I can do with my body anything I want!”
Doing so puts one on perilous moral ground. As Brugger says, “Seeing our bodies as things rather than persons, as instruments at the service of our conscious selves, is part of a mentality that accompanies some of the gravest sins of our age: bodies without consciousness.” Thus, one ends up at a place where they believe “I am not my body. My body is something I use.”
This is not a Christian view of the body. Namely, it flies in the face of our belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” We human beings are marvelously created in that we have both a body and a soul. In his passion, death, and resurrection, Christ did not redeem just one or the other, he redeemed all that we are as human beings, body, and soul. My body is an essential part of my identity, my person. It is not something I simply use for my enjoyment.
Brugger notes that an essential question to ask oneself is why you want to get a tattoo in the first place? Is it simply to get attention, to shock or offend, to intimidate, to look cool or sexy, to express rebellion or because you are bored, or all your friends are getting them, or because they’re pretty or because it’s fun? Think about it. Are any of these compelling reasons for a permanent altering of your body which, as St. Paul reminds us, is a temple of the Holy Spirit?
Fr. Mike Schmidt, of internet fame, offers the “Ten Year Test.” Namely, before you get a tattoo, ask yourself the question: ten years ago, what type of tattoo would you get? Ten years later, would you still want that tattoo on your body? Location, subject matter, the size of a tattoo, and the number of tattoos one has also come into play.
In sum, the Church does not forbid tattoos, but realizing that it is a permanent alteration to your person, one should never get a tattoo without great deliberation of the physical, social, and moral consequences.